Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Badlands Trip Notes: Part 1

I know I have been promising to write this for a while now, but things have been pretty hectic. Tomorrow is my last day of work at Augustana College and I will be hitting the road, Colorado bound tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon. But more on that later...
I am splitting this post into a few days worth. Its too long to bore you with all at once ;) So keep checking back for "the rest of the story."

Augustana's Geology Department
takes a field trip every year (for majors and non) every year to Shalimar Ranch, which is in northwestern Nebraska for a "Fossils of the Badlands" field course. The land is privately owned by an Augie alum, Bordy Munson and his family. It is White River Badlands outcrops and we mostly work the Oligocene Brule Formation, and occasionally get into the Chadron Formation. (see former post)

The first day we head to Badlands National Park, where we camp for the first night. On the way there we had one of our TA's get a flat on his car, but this was the only hangup, which was nice. Hammer (my boss) and I drive one van, while the other two TA's (Nate Smith and Paul Brinkman) drive the other. This year we had 16 undergrads along for the trip. The second day of the trip we toured Badlands, trying to dodge rain storms. Badlands has a really wonderful paleontology exhibit now in their visitor center, and I urge you to check it out if you have not seen it before.

After Badlands, we head to Wall Drug. How can you not stop in the tackiest place on earth. We let the students have an hour here (mostly to find their "tacky gift" for an annual contest we have every year to see who can find the tackiest gift at Wall Drug, under $7. There have been some interesting submissions in the past). We then eat lunch, then hit the road again. We also stop in Rapid City to visit the South Dakota School of Mines Geology Museum. These stops are all to show students other work that is/has been done in the White River Badlands and to give them a chance to see the types of fossils we will be seeing. Both Badlands and the SDSM&T museum have excellent displays for this purpose. We then stop for supplies and return to road, making the Ranch in time for dinner.

A bit of background on the ranch. Augustana has been visiting for 26 consecutive years. The ranch is a stallion ranch that also has grazing cattle and great exposures of Brule Formation! We camp on the ranch, with a great area for a big fire every night (plenty of wood too!), and a bunk house that has running water, a bathroom (with shower!), fridge, and 2 sets of bunk beds!! We are truly spoiled!

It just happened that the second day of our trip (Badlands-Wall-Rapid-Ranch) was my birthday. I was on cook crew so my group and I made burgers that night and I was eating my dinner when Hammer burst out of the bunkhouse yelling all hell-fire and pissed about something to do with the undergrads getting on his nerves. I immediately go into assistant mode and try to get the group of students that are surrounding him to disperse before he blows a gasket. The next thing I know two of our recent geology grads are singing happy birthday and bringing me a cake!! The whole thing had been a diversion so they could get it ready!! Sneaky, but a very nice surprise. By that point I had forgotten it was my birthday!

The next day was our first day of field work. We headed out to a valley we call "Mesohippus Valley" (after the first fossil ever found there) and introduce the students to prospecting and set them loose. It was great to get out and stretch my legs and enjoy the sun and outcrops. I found plenty of loose dentaires, coprolites, and limb bones. I also found a Archaeotherium tusk and one oreodont skull, but it was pretty beat up. The students were all excited to be cut loose and seemed to be doing pretty well. One kid found two oreodont skulls before lunch! After lunch we prospected another small set of badlands, which I always think of as the turtle graveyard, since that is what I most often find. Giant turtles (ok, its a tortise, I know...Stlemys nebrascensis typically), plastron up, often missing the plastron all together. They look like prehistoric salad bowls!

The next day we headed to another set of badlands further back on the ranch and prospected that area. All I found were alot of holes. A certain "commercial" group pays a fee to prospect on the ranch and they often work this area. Last year I found a nice "pocket turtle" (a turtle that is small enough to fit in your pocket, not sure what taxon he is, he's not cleaned yet, sad to say), but this year all I found was 'turtle bits' and the occasional coprolite.

Near lunch time I started to hear bangs. At first it sounded like someone throwing rocks at something metal, but then I realized they were what I did not want them to be - gun shots! I called Hammer on the walky-talky and we did not have any trouble gathering the kids up, since they were mostly already at the meeting spot for lunch. We ate and continued to listen, then on the far ridge I spotted two atv's heading in our general direction (as well as you can out there). By this time lunch was over and the students were heading back out. Hammer and Nate went in the atv's general direction to see what was up. Long story short - we had to get out of there, and fast!! The story includes a large dog and two cowboys with guns, and it is destined to include a bobcat and bear in the story by the time it becomes legend with the student body. I started hollering at the students to gather them up. They, of course, were very confused, but all complied and moved fast to get back to our meeting spot. Within five minutes we had them all gathered (I was impressed!) and we headed back to the vans. We went and worked some sections between the vans and where we had been for the rest of the day, but the area was sparse and the students were beat after their second day outside in the sun. Most of these kids are not use to being outside hiking in the sun, so we try to not kill any of them. :)

Next post...modern mammals and a nice find!

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